Volume 13 | Issue 3 | Year 2010

Consider a manufacturing career amid media reports of shuttered factories, job losses and the worst economy since the Great Depression? Although certainly counterintuitive, the answer is a resounding “yes!” Despite the shaky economy, scores of American manufacturers report a dire need for skilled labor.
Industry surveys reinforce this claim. According to the 2009 Manpower Talent Shortage Survey, among the most difficult jobs to fill in North America are those of the skilled manual trades, with electricians, carpenters/joiners and welders as the most in-demand employees. In addition, an October 2009 report issued by the Manufacturing Institute, Deloitte and Oracle, cites that among companies involved in skilled production (whose employees are machinists, craft workers and technicians), 51 percent not only report shortages but also see increased shortages ahead.

The looming skilled-worker shortage is an unwelcome threat to the nation’s manufacturing base that needs to be addressed at multiple levels – from better educating the next generation of factory workers to improving the public’s image of plant work.

There’s no doubt that manufacturing has an image problem – especially among today’s youth. A national poll of teenagers underscored in a major way teens’ disinterest in manufacturing and working with their hands and how the educational system ignored this arena as a viable career option.

The poll, sponsored by Nuts Bolts & Thingamajigs (NBT), the Foundation of the Fabricators & Manufacturers Association (FMA), showed a majority of teens (52 percent) have little or no interest in a manufacturing career. Another 21 percent are ambivalent. When asked why, a whopping 61 percent said they seek a professional career. This response far surpassed other issues such as pay (17 percent), career growth (15 percent) and physical work (14 percent).

A major reason that kids don’t pursue careers in the skilled trades is the simple fact that they are not introduced to them anymore. In the past, high school students could take a shop class and get a feel for working with tools. Today, most kids don’t have that chance.

Also, many of today’s youth are unaware that factory conditions have changed dramatically. Old stereotypes of backbreaking labor and grimy working conditions persist. Ask people today what they think of manufacturing and most will probably recite perceptions of a dirty, dangerous place that requires little thinking or skill from its workers and offers minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement. These perceptions have little to do with reality. It’s absolutely critical to change this mindset and show young people how manufacturers have modernized, embraced new technologies and involved workers in management and product development.

American adults, too, may be a root cause of disinterest among American youth to fill jobs in the industrial arena. Another NBT poll revealed that America has become a nation of “non-tinkerers,” with 60 percent of adults avoiding major household repairs: they opt to hire a handyman, enlist their spouse, ask a relative or contact a property manager. Further, 57 percent state that they have average or below average skills at fixing things around the house.

This means young people essentially have no role models when it comes to accomplishing do-it-yourself repairs or taking pride in building something useful. No wonder many of today’s teens dismiss the idea of a career in manufacturing or in one of the manual arts such as electrical, plumbing, carpentry or welding.

At the same time, the survey offers some hope that parents could influence their children to think about manufacturing work. The poll reveals parents actually would support having a young factory worker in their family. More than half (56 percent) would recommend their child pursue a career in manufacturing or another kind of industrial trade. This is welcome news. When America recovers from its economic downtown, it will be vital to inform the nation’s youth about the available opportunities.

Manufacturers, trade groups, educators and media must work to respond to this challenge. Industry associations are one group stepping up to the plate. Last March, for example, NBT partnered with the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE) to launch a national pilot program of summer manufacturing camps that builds on NBT’s successful camp blueprint.

In 2010, 16 NACCE member community colleges throughout the United States will offer NBT summer manufacturing camps targeting youth at the critical level of junior high and high school, exposing them to math, science, and engineering principles, and industry technology, as well as basic entrepreneurship.

Camp participants use technology to create a product from start to finish, providing them practical manufacturing experience in 3D design, CNC programming, welding, machining, and more, while learning product creation, problem solving, entrepreneurship and team building.

Visits to area manufacturers provide an up-close look at products being made as well as career advice and inspiration from the entrepreneurs who run the companies. In addition to manufacturing technologies, camp participants also learn entrepreneurship principles such as how products launch businesses and how small businesses are run.

NBT also issues scholarships to students at colleges and trade schools pursuing careers in manufacturing. In 2010, approximately 20 scholarships will be awarded to students across the country.

Other organizations are working on improving the image of manufacturing as well.

For example, the Weld-Ed National Center for Welding Education and Training offers summer camps, specifically for girls, focused on welding skills. And NAM is working to attract young people to manufacturing through its “Dream It –Do It” campaign. Programs like these could not exist without a need.

Reaching educators is key to improving the future skilled workforce, as education priorities today rarely position manufacturing as a preferred career choice, and high school counselors and principals often fail to realize that manufacturing is a viable option for students. Thus, today’s youth just aren’t aware of the skills needed in an advanced manufacturing environment and the careers available.

Partnerships between local manufacturers and educational institutions will encourage more people to enter the field and to employ more skilled workers in plants and factories. Manufacturers should consider offering field trips for local elementary and middle school classes, as well as Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops. Ideally, a young, energetic worker will lead a brief tour of the plant. When students see a clean, modern facility full of sophisticated machinery, it will fascinate them and leave a lasting impression. If more companies partner with schools and youth organizations and arrange factory visits, the word will definitely spread.

Employers should foster ties with education officials in local communities and be willing to invest in people. Manufacturing equipment suppliers should consider donating equipment to local trade or vocational schools to support manufacturing courses. Manufacturers also should advise instructors and counselors at community colleges or high schools on job opportunities available and in curriculum planning.

“Manufacturers should reach out and be more active in their communities,” said Dr. Chris Kuehl, economic analyst for FMA International. “Manufacturers aren’t terribly active in Chambers of Commerce or professional associations or with their local universities and colleges.”

One of the most innovative programs in recent memory designed to give young people a view of manufacturing opportunities is called Max & Ben’s Manufacturing Adventures. It’s a Web site where two 13-year old boys present their tours of local manufacturing facilities in video format. Funded through a community-based job-training grant from the Department of Labor, the program was conceived and executed by Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wis.

We need to reach today’s youth through the school system to help them realize they can operate the most advanced, sophisticated equipment in the world at a highly competitive wage.

States, schools and businesses should consider addressing the shortfall in skilled workers directly through vocational training and workforce development programs. One such initiative was recently launched in California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled the “I Built It-Youth” campaign, a statewide effort to begin training California’s future skilled workforce to help rebuild California’s infrastructure.

The campaign is a collaborative effort between the California Department of Industrial Relations and the California Department of Education. It is designed to promote careers in the construction trades to junior and senior high students through apprenticeship opportunities, and it fosters participation in the state’s economic recovery process to prepare students to join California’s next generation of skilled workers.

“Rebuilding California’s infrastructure will require a new generation of skilled workers and this campaign will promote apprenticeships targeted at our youth to prepare them for these important jobs,” Schwarzenegger has stated. “The recent passage of legislation to reform and rebuild the state’s water system is the perfect example of a project that will require the talents and knowledge of these workers. Investing in California’s workforce is a key component to our state’s long-term economic recovery.”

Another example of a successful workforce development program is The Society of Manufacturing Engineers’ partnership with Project Lead The Way. The initiative develops more than 250 Gateway Academies that give young people insight into the value of math, science and teaming. These academies provide a platform for future engineering and manufacturing to help youth find meaningful careers in the skilled trade arena.

Another strategy to attract the next generation of workers is a concept employers have used for centuries – the apprenticeship and its cousin, the internship. Their value has never been so significant and appreciated; young people are exposed to the exciting opportunities in manufacturing while companies have a chance to recruit, evaluate and hire needed employees. Manufacturers should institute these programs or other training initiatives to introduce high school students to careers in the trades.

Companies also should tap the knowledge of their aging workforce, as these highly skilled workers can play a training role both within and outside an organization. Climax Portable Machine Tools in Newberg, Ore., for example, instituted a cross-training program that features senior machinists training and acting as mentors to junior employees, and established an in-house training program to help reverse the attrition of highly trained machinists and to keep them current with the new skills necessary.

Other older machinists act as advisors to instructors at local community colleges to assist them in teaching the newest machining techniques and helping with curriculum planning. By recognizing the value of these workers, Climax strengthens both its own internal processes and reputation within the community and with customers.

All of the campaigns and programs described here can help change young people’s minds about manufacturing – if they hear about them. We must constantly inform the media about all of these exciting initiatives with energetic public information campaigns, work with them to help tell these stories to the public – and convince young people dream jobs are there for the taking.

It’s also one of the missions of the NBT, co-founded by actor, producer and director John Ratzenberger, to spark interest among young people in the industry and help revitalize the future of manufacturing in America. The NBT utilizes its resources in local and national public awareness campaigns to spread the message that manufacturing is a viable career option. Information about those efforts and programs is available at www.nutsandboltsfoundation.org.

It’s the adult responsibility to inform young people that viable career opportunities exist in the manufacturing arena.

Gerald Shankel is president and chief executive officer of Rockford, Ill.-based Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, International (FMA). Founded in 1970, FMA brings together metal fabricators and fabricating equipment manufacturers through technology councils, educational programs, networking events, and the FABTECH International/AWS Welding Show. FMA also has a technology affiliate, the Tube & Pipe Association, International, which focuses on the unique needs of companies engaged in tube and pipe producing and fabricating. Visit www.fmanet.org.

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